November 11, 2011

This one's 'big'

If there's been one familiar theme emanating from both the Georgia and Auburn camps leading up to Saturday's 115th-meeting between the two long-time rivals, it's that neither team is the same as it was a season ago.

"I don't think so. It's two new teams; I mean we're not the same exact teams we were last year," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "We're just going to go out there and play ball. We're not talking about last year; we're just worried about going out there, making plays and putting points on the board. That's the only thing that matters."

The circumstances have certainly changed.

Last season, it was Auburn trying to protect its undefeated season and keep its national championship hopes alive. Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS), it's 14th-ranked Georgia (7-2, 5-1) with some hardware on the line.

With a win over the 24th-ranked Tigers (6-3, 4-2) coupled by a victory by Florida over South Carolina, 14th-ranked Bulldogs (7-2, 5-1) would claim the SEC East crown. Otherwise, Georgia will need to beat the Tigers and Kentucky next week to earn the trip to the Georgia Dome.

Georgia comes into play winners of seven straight, tying for the most consecutive victories in the Mark Richt era.

"I think this is a completely different team that we're facing, as opposed to where they were two years ago when we went in there. No. 1, I think the biggest thing, and you can see it when you watch their film, is you have a team that's won that many games in a row, and they are playing with a huge amount of confidence and they're getting better every week," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "We have to minimize any of the explosive plays from them offensively. All of those things are going to be a part of the equation for us, along with us trying to possess the football and keep it out of their offense, which is extremely potent. I'm not sure there are any new revelations on how to go in there and win, but we know if we don't do a majority of the things I just mentioned, we'll have no chance."

For Georgia and Richt, the contest is just the latest in a series of steps the Bulldogs will be trying to take after starting the season 0-2.

Looking back, Richt said it's been an interesting climb.

"Basically, you try to build team. You try to build togetherness. You try to build family. You try to build trust. That's how you handle adversity when you have trust, when you have unity and when you have guys that believe. But you're never for sure until it hits you in the mouth how you are going to react," Richt said. "I wasn't shocked that the guys reacted in a real positive way. There wasn't a whole lot of 'woe is me' in there, it was more of 'if we get our act together we together we can be really good.'"

Although many continue to point at Georgia's schedule and the fact the Bulldogs have yet to defeat a ranked team, the numbers being posted are impressive nonetheless.

Offensively, Murray is the league's top-rated quarterback in terms of pass efficiency (151.3) having completed 153 of 255 passes for 2,060 yards and 23 touchdowns, two shy of Matthew Stafford's single-season mark of 25 set in 2008.

"He's just one of those guys," Chizik said. "He's one of those leaders that everybody on offense looks at and probably feeds off of, because of not only how well he plays and what he's done productivity-wise, but the element of toughness he brings to the game. You can tell he has that."

Murray will have some help this week, not only with the return of last week's suspensed running backs Isaiah Crowell and Carlton Thomas, but wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell who will play for the first time in four games since pulling his hamstring at Tennessee.

But when it comes to pin-pointing the reason for the Bulldogs' turnaround, it starts on the defensive side.

During its current seven-game win streak, Georgia has allowed just eight offensive touchdowns while ranking third in the conference in two key team defensive categories - rush defense (91.1), total defense (282.0 yards per game), while ranking second in opponent's third-down conversions (28 percent) and sacks (21).

It's Georgia's run defense which is expected to get perhaps its' biggest test of the year.

Behind running backs Michael Dyer (186-989-9) and Onterio McCalebb (84-448-2), Auburn is the league's second-best rushing team behind Alabama, averaging 191.1 yards per game.

"I think our run defense is better for a lot of reasons. Number one, we are big. We are big up front. A year ago our nose guard was DeAngelo Tyson. Tyson is a pretty big man, but compared to what Kwame (Geathers) is and what Jonathan Jenkins is, it's just a little bit different," Richt said. "I just think we understand what we're doing better. I think Coach (Todd) Grantham, being in his second year, it's been very, very good."

But just because Auburn has been more effective running the football, that doesn't mean the Tigers won't try to throw the football, not with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn running the show.

Since Clint Moseley took over as the Tiger starter two weeks ago against LSU, the sophomore from Leroy, Ala. has completed 24 of 35 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns, with each of the scores coming in a 41-23 win over Ole Miss back on Oct. 29.

The Tigers, who had a bye last week, would like to be as balanced as possible against the Bulldogs.

"I think that any time you can be 50-50, that's the perfect world. The reality of it is we've always tried to be as balanced as we could. That's one of the things that Gus and I have continuously talked about and we're on the same page with," Chizik said. "However, defenses are doing certain things that just don't allow you to do that, or circumstances in the game don't necessarily always allow you to be as balanced as you'd like. That's always the goal going into the game in any game, but again, when the defenses show their hand in terms of what they're going to do, then you have to adapt and adjust on the run and do what's best for you to give yourself and opportunity to move the ball."

Bulldog tight end Aron White says the Bulldogs are ready.

"We're in a spot where we control our own destiny and they're in a spot where they're trying to put themselves in the best situation they can, as far as the post-season is concerned," White said. "They're a great team and not one that we're going to underestimate, but we definitely have something to prove against them. They're a team that I hadn't lost to until last year. I'm sure they have it out for us, just like we have it out for them this weekend."

Anthony Dasher is the managing editor for UGASports
and he can be reached via email at [email protected]